SALT LAKE CITY — For 26 years, starting in 1993 and continuing until this past (2017-18) season, the preseason goal for Utah gymnastics at its core was always the same — advance to the Super Six.
It was simple really.
By securing a berth in the Super Six, the final stage of NCAA women’s gymnastics competition, the Red Rocks would place themselves in legitimate contention for a national championship.
In 21 of the last 26 years the Utes accomplished that goal, and advanced to the Super Six more than any other program, save Alabama (23 appearances).
In that time Utah won two national titles and finished second an additional five times.
As a result, Utah has roundly been considered one of the finest gymnastics programs in the nation.
Back-to-back fifth-place finishes in 2017 and 2018 have taken some of the proverbial shine off the Red Rocks, however, and with the introduction of a new postseason format — more on that later — there is added pressure on the team to take a leap forward this season.
It's a kind of pressure that Utah co-head coach Megan Marsden is well aware of.
“The last couple of years have been a little disappointing,” Marsden said. “Our goal is to compete for national championships and to compete at our best at the national championships. The last couple of years have been disappointing because (our effort) has been something just less than that.”
“Not blowing it,” she quickly added, “but just not seizing the moment.”
That, despite multiple Pac-12 championships and the presence of a host of All-Americans, including two-time NCAA champion MyKayla Skinner.
Marsden expects, or at the very least hopes, that to change this season, thanks to the arrival of a quartet of moment-seeking freshmen.
“I think with the addition of some of our talented freshmen, we have added more people to the group that looks forward to the decisive moments,” Marsden said. “They are people who love to compete under pressure and those characteristics will certainly help.”
Between Crystal Isa, Adrienne Randall, Hunter Dula and Cammy Hall — Hall is out for the year with a lower-leg injury — the Red Rocks boast Junior Olympic National Team members, champions and qualifiers.
“We already have freshmen that have broken into the lineup,” Marsden said.
As such, the Utes expect real and sustained production from the newcomers.
“We’ll learn more over the season, but the freshmen have really brought a lot to this team,” Skinner said. “Usually, your freshman year is really intimidating, but I feel like these freshmen have really fit in and are a part of everything. They are really prepared and I feel like that is why we will do so good this year. They all have something to add to this team on each event.”
More than just production, the fearlessness of the Red Rocks freshmen has already rubbed off on some of the team’s upperclassman.
“We definitely had people like MyKayla who love to compete under pressure,” said Marsden, “but upperclassman get more confident when they feel others coming into the group to form a new nucleus that is ready to handle the pressure. I think that could make some changes for us. How much this year? We are going to see.”
Among the upperclassmen expected to contribute this season are Skinner, as well as senior’s Kari Lee and MaKenna Merrell-Giles, and junior All-American Missy Reinstadtler, all four of whom will compete in the all-around.
Throw in All-American Sydney Soloski, Alexia Burch, Kim Tessen, and senior Shannon McNatt, among others, and the Utes have one of their deepest rosters in years.
“I hope that we can at least finish top four, but top three would be really awesome for us,” said Skinner. “I think this team has what it takes to get there.”
The improved depth and talent will be needed thanks to the new postseason format, Four on the Floor.
The change eliminates the Super Six, redoes the Regionals format and adds an unknown element to the season that the Red Rocks are already preparing for.
“(Tom Farden and I) are beginning already to address that,” Marsden said, “and we will be doing more and more of that as we get closer to (the postseason). We think it is important that the athletes understand that we want to be one of those four teams on the last night.”
To be one of the final four teams remaining at season’s end, Marsden expects the Utes to have to change nearly everything about the program in one form or another.
“It will take some adjustment in our training,” said Marsden. “Some of our expectations have to go up in certain areas. We have already talked to the girls about some of that. It has been a long time coming, but I think it will definitely benefit the athletes.”Comment on this story
Possibly to the tune of another Utah national championship.
“We are a team to watch out for this year,” Lee said. “I don’t think people are expecting much from us. They are looking at UCLA, Oklahoma and LSU, those kind of schools, but we kind of like the underdog role. We can come out from nowhere and take people by surprise.”
RED ROCKS ON THE AIR
No. 5 Utah vs. Penn State
Saturday, 4 p.m. MDT
Huntsman Center, Salt Lake City
Radio: ESPN 700 AM
Online: https://goo.gl/TAQQvW (Live stream)